Iraq's political leaders met for the second straight day Tuesday in an effort to end a months-long political deadlock, but key figures stayed away from the all-party talks meant to produce a power-sharing deal ahead of a looming court-mandated parliamentary session.
Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite whose Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition narrowly won the March 7 elections, did not attend Tuesday's gathering in Baghdad. A spokesman said he was ill. Iraqiya's senior Sunni member, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, was also a no-show although delegates were sent to represent the coalition.
Iraqiya members denied Mr. Allawi's absence was a snub. Some hinted they would push for Thursday's parliament meeting to be delayed in order to address the wide disagreements on a power-sharing deal that still exist between them and Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's National Alliance.
Mr. Allawi's coalition has been offered the post of parliamentary speaker in a Maliki-led government and also the leadership of a new National Council for Strategic Policies.
But the Iraqiya bloc has rejected the offer and is instead fighting to limit the power of Mr. Maliki, a Shi'ite now partnered with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in an Iranian-backed coalition. Iraqi officials say they are trying to persuade Iraqiya to accept the parliament speaker's post, or to talk the Kurds - a key partner in any new government - into giving up the presidency.
Top U.S. political leaders have also asked Kurdish officials to drop their claim to the presidency in favor of Mr. Allawi as a way to keep him in the government, but without success.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. is willing to keep troops in Iraq past the current deadline, but only if that is what Iraq's leaders want. Gates made the comment to reporters in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday after a meeting with Malaysia's defense minister. The current agreement calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
A rising wave of violence has prompted U.S. and Iraqi officials to express a willingness to revisit the deal. But Gates said any request would have to come from a functioning Iraqi government.